Planned (Frum) Parenting

I do not think that I am a great parent; I do not know if I am even a good one. Nonetheless, even those of us whose accomplishments are mediocre or worse learn from experience and can thus ascend the soap box once in a while to share advice with others (or to rant, based on the audience’s perspective).

Parenting in the frum world is a unique experience, as our schedules and obligations are typically far weightier than those of general society. Furthermore, unlike in the secular world, where education of youth is principally pragmatic – to provide the tools to make a living and conduct oneself properly, with awareness and appreciation for certain values and knowledge – the Jewish obligation of Talmud Torah, Torah study, transcends the pragmatic and is a holy lifelong endeavor of dedication to Hashem, demanding consistent reinforcement and presenting challenges throughout.

These factors – the character of a frum lifestyle and the nature of our chinuch (Torah education) obligations – combine in such a way that parenting for Orthodox Jews becomes a unique enterprise, requiring its own focus and cultivation, far beyond the “basics” of good parenting that general society preaches. Parenting in any society is never basic, but frum parenting brings with it a heightened new realm of essentials that must be brought to the fore.

Again, I do not consider myself to be a good example, yet experience and observation are worth something; I therefore would like to present some points to ponder regarding frum parenting, for those who are interested. Although lengthy books are written on this subject, I submit here a few of the areas of concern which I feel are the most overlooked.

Kids Being Normal, Parents Being Attuned and Focused

Although individuality is a virtue and is usually the basis for cultivating personal greatness, the value and centrality of the tzibbur, the public, looms large in Orthodox life. Cookie-cutter people are not the goal, but practical functioning and acceptance within the parameters of social norms is part of the vital fabric of frum society, for better or for worse. As such, our children very much need to operate and be accepted within the mainstream of their surroundings. While marching to one’s own drummer can more or less work in general society, in Orthodox society it is often a recipe for loneliness, future struggle and even failure.

Rabbi Chaim Pechter, my son’s high school principal, always advises parents on orientation night that despite parents’ own “sheetos” (ideological positions), such as that clothing style is irrelevant, or that one should not waste time and money at restaurants, parents are very ill-advised to make their children korbonos (sacrifices) for these values. Children (especially in frum society) need to feel that they fit in and are part of the norm. When children are forced to uphold values that conflict with the children’s social setting, the results are quite negative.

Hence, it is not only important to make sure that one’s children are in a proper environment, but it is also of utmost importance that one’s children are able to be mainstreamed in a healthy and good manner within that environment. This is where focused and attuned frum parenting comes in, as determining which communities/schools/social groups will provide an optimal environment is crucial, but being keyed in to the expectations and norms of that environment is also extremely necessary.

For example, unlike in general society, where summer is off-time and people frequently scatter and do their own things, in frum society, it is not uncommon and is even sometimes expected for everyone to be together and do pretty much the same thing, be it to attend certain camps, programs or the like. If most children in a frum community or school are attending a certain learning camp, day camp or program, or are working as counselors at a specific group of camps, one should think twice before deciding instead to send one’s child to nature camp or to an overseas program, as this seemingly innocent and noble move can set the child off from the others and deny him the sense of continuity, relative normalcy and cohesiveness that binds, identifies and is shared by the rest of the group.

School Above All Else

To describe the frum lifestyle as busy can be a massive understatement. Aside from placing primary focus on the service of Hashem via the “religious” aspects of life (daily tefillah, Torah learning, observance of mitzvos, Shabbos and Yom Tov schedules, etc.), while exerting full effort toward career and family, simchos can abound, with some people being invited to weddings several nights a week and to an aufruf or other affairs on countless Shabbosim.

While it is a mitzvah to attend these celebrations, the mitzvah of one’s children’s chinuch often comes first. Going away for Shabbos, which can deprive children of their normal sleep and schedules and can cause them to miss school on Erev Shabbos and Sunday, where applicable, has to be done on a very selective basis. Families who frequently go away for Shabbos are sometimes unaware of the negative impact it has on their children’s chinuch. So too for parents who are out very late at weddings on an extremely frequent basis. (And not to mention the effect of this all on one’s own Torah learning.)

School Choice

Thank God, the range of yeshivos/day schools of all types is broad and ever-expanding. While this sounds like a positive development, it is actually a greater challenge, as mosdos chinuch (educational institutions) are becoming far more specialized than ever before. Sometimes the difference between one yeshiva and the next can be glaring, while at times it can be quite nuanced.

Irrespective of the degree of difference between one yeshiva, Bais Yaakov or day school and the next, the impact upon students can be seismic. Carefully researching each potential school for one’s child is critical, including attending open house programs, speaking with families who succeeded and who did not succeed with each particular school, and looking closely at the paths taken by alumni.

There is a tendency among frum Jews who “cross party lines” to inadvertently be less careful with their choice of schools. For example, parents from Modern Orthodox backgrounds who enroll their children in more yeshivish schools are at times apt to fail to do the necessary research, as for these parents, by way of illustration, the sight of boys with hats and jackets is already a bit foreign, and most “black hat” yeshivos seem sort of similar. So too, parents from more yeshivish backgrounds who decide that their children need the exposure of a more Modern Orthodox school are sometimes prone to lump the Modern Orthodox schools together, within a certain range. In both of these systems, the differences between each school is real and often immense, and it behooves prospective parents to research each school with painstaking meticulousness before moving forward.

Being Very Involved

Unlike in general society, where couples have fewer children and study is for the most part not a family event, frum couples, who generally have many children, can feel bombarded with educational obligations for each child, such as school orientation evenings and parent-teacher conferences – one session for every child, and often at a variety of different schools – as well as weekly Avos U’Vanim learning programs and the like. While these events are blessings, they can seem to be quite a lot to juggle.

Yet it is important to attend and participate and to make this all an absolute priority.

Teachers have told me how many parents fail to attend parent-teacher conferences, and I observe parents who never once attend Avos U’Vanim programs with their sons; their sons attend by themselves, or not at all. The time and effort invested to intimately track and address one’s child’s progress, and to religiously bond and show where one’s priorities lie, yield priceless dividends – not to mention the personal negative impact on a child whose parents are typically no-shows for these events. This is part of the responsibility of parenting, and the long-term effect of these and similar endeavors is profound.

Setting an Example – Through Omission

Fathers have on occasion told me that they do not daven Maariv with a minyan, as their wives need them to help out at home in the evening, or that they learn at home at night in order to set an example for their children, or that they are less strict about certain z’manim (halachic time) issues, so that their children can be awake for Kiddush, Havdalah or the like.

Although if one’s wife literally cannot function without her husband missing Maariv with a minyan should warrant his davening at home, what may be more important in the larger picture is the example rather than the action. When children see that their father has to rush out for something very important – Maariv with a minyan – or that he spends a portion of each evening at the beis medrash, or that at certain times of the year, Kiddush and Havdalah are too late for them, they are imbued with the concept that Torah and Mitzvos come first and supersede all else. (I actually asked a preeminent posek [halachic decisor] about the Shabbos z’manim issue, and these words encapsulate his reply.) Just as not getting everything which one desires is a life lesson for patience and for appreciation of reality, the life lesson of sacrifice of one’s time for Torah and Mitzvos, taught by the animated example of one’s parents, is irreplaceable.

What Will Inspire Them?

Many people like prefer no-frills davening, and they prefer to pray at a small shteibel or beis medrash that has no derashos (speeches), minimal singing and often no rabbi. While I leave the propriety of this approach to the discretion of the person and his rav (if he has one – and one must!), for children it is quite often a recipe for a life of uninspired tefillah and lack of connection to a rabbi. When bringing children to shul, their needs for a positive example and an inspiring experience and must be given heavy consideration and acted upon.

So too, discussing intricate halachic topics at the Shabbos table with erudite guests is wonderful, but failure to also colorfully and intently discuss the parsha and so forth with one’s children, and to provide inspiration tailored to them, is really unwise and unfair.

Shabbos Guests    

The mitzvah of Hachnasas Orchim (Hospitality) must be carefully calculated when dealing with a tableful of one’s own children, or even one child or one’s spouse. While it is extremely meritorious to provide a Shabbos meal or lodging to those who need a place, there are times when hospitality breeds hostility, such as when guests monopolize the host and deprive the children of basic attention and some private time with parents. There is no greater turn-off to a child at a Shabbos table than being ignored and drowned out. Some guests do not respect essential family dynamics, and one is wise to consider not hosting these guests when it comes at the large expense of one’s family. (Furthermore, the mitzvah of Hachnasas Orchim pertains to those in need of hospitality. People who otherwise have a place to eat and stay, but are invited purely for social reasons, should certainly not have priority over the attention one is obliged to provide to one’s own household.)

Give Them Space

Even if a parent davens in a shul or a beis medrash which he feels is optimal for his children’s inspiration and appreciation of tefillah, everyone is different. If older children feel more comfortable davening in a different minyan, so long as that minyan is also seen as an optimal makom tefillah (place of prayer), consideration should be given to permit this, even though it means that the family does not all daven together. Everyone responds to different stimuli and is comfortable with different settings; assuming that a child knows how to daven and will be in a positive tefillah atmosphere, with good examples there, forcing him to daven elsewhere with his parents may not be wise.

Unconditional Love

To successfully grow into a ben or bas Torah, a genuine religious Jew who embodies the Torah, is no easy task, to put it lightly, yet it is attainable, as such is what Hashem expects, and it has been successfully achieved for thousands of years. However, even should a child not appear to be on the trajectory for we must aim, that child nonetheless needs unconditional love.

Guidance is Indispensable     

Frum childrearing is among the most delicate and sensitive endeavors there ever will be. Ever so subtle decisions can impact a child for life. It is crucial for every parent to have an experienced rav or a seasoned mechanech (Torah educator) with whom to consult for the multitude of issues that can arise.

I realize that much of what I wrote above can be deflected and rejected as one amateur’s personal rant, and that it can be dismissed for stating the overly obvious. And yes, I anticipate all the critical comments and a few keystroke assaults. But if this article can be of positive use to even one reader, it was well worth entering the line of cyber-fire.

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15 Responses

  1. Alexandra Fleksher says:

    Thsnk you for this. You write, “When children are forced to uphold values that conflict with the children’s social setting, the rules can be quite disasterous.” Forget about eating or not eating in restaurants. More and more children (starting with the tween set) in Jewish day schools are given Internet devices (ipods, iphones, etc) by their parents. And there are some of us that are still sticking to our guns and will not bow. So will that yield disasterous results if this is quickly becoming more normative in many of our communities?

  2. Avrohom Gordimer says:

    Mrs. Fleksher: Thank you very much. I concur with you fully. The example of restaurants which I provided (mine, not from Rabbi Pechter) refers to an innocuous social activity that some people aver; however, things such as unsupervised internet devices certainly do not fit into this category, and my intent was not to include them and other potentially problematic things.

  3. Alexandra fleksher says:

    My question to you, Rabbi Gordimer, is how do we communicate that perspective to our children when more an more, they are feeling like outsiders from their peers who do have those devices? From their perspective, they feel they are being forced to uphold standards that conflict with their social setting.
    Thank you,
    Mrs. Fleksher

  4. Avrohom Gordimer says:

    Mrs. Fleksher,

    The easy, yet probably impractical answer, would be to have one’s children enrolled in schools/surrounded by friends for whom these devices are not common or allowed.

    The hard, yet probably practical answer (in my novice opinion), would be to explain that you have a different standard, as articulated by whichever Torah personalities your children revere, which does not feel that it is proper for them to have these devices.

    I urge you to consult with veteran mechanchim, though, for direct guidance.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    “If most children in a frum community or school are attending a certain learning camp, day camp or program, or are working as counselors at a specific group of camps, one should think twice before deciding instead to send one’s child to nature camp or to an overseas program, as this seemingly innocent and noble move can set the child off from the others and deny him the sense of continuity, relative normalcy and cohesiveness that binds, identifies and is shared by the rest of the group.”

    What if the summer pursuits of the frum peer group are things a student’s parents can’t afford?

  6. Avrohom Gordimer says:

    The article refers to a case in which the parent voluntarily opts to take a different path, rather than doing so for lack of affordability. Summer programs are among the most costly of educational expenses, surpassing school tuition once children are past preschool. It is a real problem.

    I do not think that the choice of summer plans will make it or break it for anyone, but it is rather the attitude or approach of parents who show inadequate concern for their children to have pretty much the same experiences as their peers which I feel is the issue. Again, no one seeks cookie-cutter molds, but I have witnessed cases of children falling out of the religious and social norm because their parents cared not to check what the rest of the kids were doing, and instead ended up isolating their children from the rest.

    • AS says:

      “While marching to one’s own drummer can more or less work in general society, in Orthodox society it is often a recipe for loneliness, future struggle and even failure.”

      I read this article with a heavy heart. It seems you are throwing in the towel on the possibility of Orthodox society being able to accommodate those who march to their own drummer and are telling parents they just need to accept it, and get on-board with conformity. This is a perfect recipe for having all those kids go OTD.

  7. G says:

    This article describes specific ‘frum parenting’ issues. There’s a foundational piece that’s not emphasized, though. Raising children requires enormous personal growth and a commitment to understanding the wonderful little people with whom Hashem has entrusted us. It’s an avodah in every sense of the word. There are skills and mindsets that go into navigating everyday life with children, and they don’t come naturally to many people. Parenting is much bigger than solutions to specific challenges. The way parents handle everything – from the oversleeping child who misses the school bus to the child who whines to the child who craves designer clothing to the child who clashes with the rebbi – sends crucial messages to their children. There are different approaches and different styles, but more than having chinuch ideologies, parents need to be dedicated to understanding and nurturing children’s growth as human beings – and yes, as frum Jews.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    Rav Gordimer commented, “Summer programs are among the most costly of educational expenses, surpassing school tuition once children are past preschool. It is a real problem.”

    Not only is it a problem, but that problem can cause the student with very concerned but not affluent parents to fall out of step with the richer frum students, if the rest of this article’s analysis is correct. Already, many families “have” to live in frum communities well above the parents’ pay grade.

  9. SA says:

    As for Shabbos davening, may I add that no man should decide without very careful consultation with a Rav (and then some additional thought) about davening neitz on Shabbos — however much “preferred” that may be halachically, especially if one has teenage sons.

    Speaking from experience and no little pain.

  10. Rafael Araujoberg says:

    SA – I agree with you. That also applies to a Shabbos/YT “hashkamah” minyan as well, which starts earlier than the regular Shabbos minyan (eg. 7:30 or 8:00 AM minyan vs. 8:45/9:00/9:15), where a pre-teen/teenager wants to sleep in on Shabbos after a hard week of getting up early for school minyan and therefore either davens at a later minyan, not with the father, or davens at home. Also speaking from experience.

  11. DF says:

    “It is crucial for every parent to have an experienced rav or a seasoned mechanech (Torah educator) with whom to consult for the multitude of issues that can arise.”

    I don’t agree with that, and that runs counter to Jewish parenting for millennia. All generations have their own problems, and it has NEVER been the norm for parents to consult with “a rav or mechanech” over how to raise one’s children. The problem with your suggestion is not merely that it is again just another facet of the tired “daas torah” debate (if that’s the word) over which there has never been, and never will be, consensus. Rather, you are suggesting that parents subcontract parenting decisions over their children to an outsider. Parents know their children better than anyone else. If you prefer a more “frum” formulation thereof, parents have a certain “siyata dishmaya” over their children that no one else enjoys. No rabbi or Mechanech knows one’s children like his parents.

    To the extent you emphasize that you merely speak of “consulting”, and not actually delegating responsibility – of course, it’s always a good idea to consult with others over anything. But this is simply common sense, and one can consult with anyone, not only rabbis or mechanchim. (Though for schooling issues, naturally, as opposed to parenting, the latter would have a good perspective.) There are many unsophisticated and Jews new to the religious scene who do, in fact, subcontract their parenting to rabbis, and the results are not infrequently disastrous.

    (DF: As I wrote at the beginning of the article, the article is not about general parenting techniques. For that, there is no replacement for the decisions of the actual parents, who must take responsibility and take the bull by the horns. Rather, the need for a rav or a mechanech is for the specific religious issues that the article addresses – issues that require specialized halachic or hashkafic training and experience. – AG)

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    Great article! I would suggest that Chanoch HaNaar lFi Darcho-as opposed to the hashkafa of the parents is a critical consideration, as well as parents on both sides of the Mechitzah who value Limud HaTorah, and Shabbos meals where Zmiros, Divrei Torah and recognizing the importance of both the need for for family only meals and Hachnasas Orchim , and learning with your children are priorities are among the key ingredients to successful chinuch and child rearing. Like it or not, we have to realize that we are passing on a Mesorah of Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim and the more importance that we stress in doing so, as opposed to merely relying on the school setting for presenting the raw materials so that a child can make his or her uninformed choice to chuck 12 years+ of Jewish education.

  13. Noam stadlan says:

    I agree with much of the article, particularly regarding schools. Some MO send their kids to right wing schools and the parents are surprised when the kids are taught to reject their parents’ hashkafot and minhagim. I would differ with respect to summer programs. Every child is different. If one wants to go do what everyone else is doing- great. On the other hand, children should be encouraged to develop their interests. They don’t need to be robots. Furthermore, at some point they will learn they there is a big world outside of orthodoxy and they will need to navigate that world. Summer programs are a good way for some kids to develop their interests as well as figure out how to find kosher food, make arrangements for Shabbat, etc. obviously it is a delicate issue of timing, but better to develop skills when the parents are near by and easily accessible than being thrown in with no life skills later on. Also, for those of us who believe that we are to be a light unto the nations, it is hard to do that when we do not interact with the people of the nations, and stay in our isolated conclaves.

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    Noam Stadlan-The reason why many parents of all hashkafos send their kids to summer camps is to implement on a daily basis such Midos as Achdus, etc, which sometimes seem like empty phrases during the course of a school year. Spending a summer in a Torah based camp for either gender IMO seems a far better way of transmitting hashkafa than placing a kid in a secular camp and expecting a kid to fend for themselves. One becomes and acts as a light to the nations first by inculcating a full committment to one’s own values and then learning to interact in the arena of higher education and work in a halachically and hashkafically proper manner.

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